Zwoz: The Wizard of Oz

It’s amazing what you can learn about a person in 45 minutes.  After 6 long months the Whitemud Citizen’s for Public Health (WCPH)* was granted an audience with the Health Minister, Mr. Zwozdesky.  It’s hard to describe the meeting, although the word bizarre springs to mind.

WCPH hoped to have a meaningful dialogue with the Minister about the new Alberta Health Act, the privatization of seniors care and transparency and accountability.  Instead we were treated to a dazzling demonstration of how the Zwoz keeps the public, the press and the opposition at bay when they ask a difficult question.  Here’s the Coles Notes version of Zwoz’s technique:  start with the political pulpit—describe something, anything, the government has done and hope that this deflects the troublesome question.  If that fails try the conjurer’s trick of misdirection “black is white, you must be mistaken” and as a last resort fall back on the Sgt Schultz response “I know nothing”.**

Here’s how Zwoz used the razzle dazzle technique to dance around our agenda:

The new Alberta Health ActWe asked why the Act is peppered with phrases which open the door to increased privatization?  Why is the independence of the Health Advocate compromised by making him report directly to the Minister instead of the Legislature?  And why is the Minister given the power to make major changes to the Act by passing regulations instead of bringing these changes to the Legislature?

The Minister popped out of the political pulpit:  his government had made a 5 year funding commitment to ensure financial stability.  Yes, that was wonderful, but it’s not what we were talking about.  Unfazed he moved to misdirection suggesting that our concerns about privatization were based on “rumours” we’d picked up from the leaked paper which set out the transition to the new Alberta Health Act.

This was a shrewd move.  By raising the leaked paper first he was able to reshape it to his liking.  He said the reference to “privatization” (in fact the entire leaked paper) was simply a reflection of the public’s feedback and did not represent the government’s position at all.  Black is white. 

Sensing our scepticism (the leaked paper sets out a plan to roll 5 additional pieces of legislation into the new Alberta Health Act—hardly the kind of thing the public would dream up) Zwoz dropped back to the Sgt Schultz defence.  He was not in caucus the day the paper was presented and had nothing further to say.  Did a rogue government employee take the paper to caucus and get the Premier’s blessing without Zwoz’s knowledge or consent?  It doesn’t matter.  Zwoz knows nothing about it, so drop it and move on.

What about the Minister’s power to make substantial changes to the Act by passing regulations, thereby avoiding Legislative (public) scrutiny?  Zwoz assured us that his power only applied to minor regulatory changes;  substantive changes would continue to go before the Legislature.  Really?  Furthermore, the regulations would be published for all to see.  Lovely, published where and for how long?  Zwoz thought they’d be published for 30 days on the Health and Wellness website but he wasn’t sure.  As far as he was concerned the promise to “publish” a regulation granting him new powers was a fine example of openness and transparency.  The question of whether he should have those powers in the first place was irrelevant.  Black is white.

Privatization of seniors care:  WCPH turned to the government’s “aging in place” policy.  This policy will ensure that seniors get the level of care they need without having to move to a new residence every time the level of care increases.  Sounds fine in theory, but the government has reduced the number of public care facilities in favour of facilities run by for-profit companies.  We illustrated our concern with for-profit facilities by describing the appalling care a senior had received in the for-profit Touchmark facility after she’d left the public Good Samaritan facility.

Zwoz responded from the political pulpit.  He’d build 1100 “spaces” already.  Interesting, but not relevant.  He expressed surprise that the Good Samaritan had provided poor care.  It didn’t and we didn’t say that it did.  The culprit in this story was Touchmark, not Good Samaritan.  Brownie points for misdirection though.

He knew nothing of Touchmark (ah the Sgt Schultz gambit) and added that he was besieged by for-profit companies begging for more money, but he refused to give it to them.   I think he thought this would impress us, but it simply confirmed the fundamental problem with for-profit service providers.  If they can’t make their profit margins by government subsidies, they will raise fees and reduce costs by cutting services.  The result:  staff reductions and poorer quality of care.

Transparency and accountability:  We referred the Minister to a recent article by Frank Work, the Privacy Commissioner, in which Mr Work advised PC leadership candidates not to promise openness, transparency and accountability unless they really mean it, because the voters would actually call them on it if they failed to deliver.  What was his reaction?

Zwoz had two comments.  He wasn’t aware of Frank Work’s article.  Sgt Schultz again.  But when Mr Stelmach took office he swept away the closed opaque regime created by Mr Klein and created the open transparent government we see today.  Classic black is white. 

Okay, let’s discuss the government’s refusal to call a public inquiry and the impact this had on public trust.  Zwoz explained that public inquiries take years and cost millions of dollars, the Health Quality Council of Alberta had everything in hand and would issue progress reports in 3, 6, and 9 months.  Ann McLellan was an advisor, how could we doubt her integrity?  Think about this a moment.  Our question focused on the issue of public trust.  Zwod turned it into a question of time, cost and whether Ann McLellan was biased.  Nice piece of misdirection Mr Minister.

We were now 15 minutes past our allotted time (and ready to throw ourselves into the reflecting pool outside the Legislature).  We thanked the Health Minister for his time and asked to come back another day to continue the conversation.  He stopped short of saying are you kidding me?  Instead he pointed out that he was a very busy man.  This portfolio was the busiest he’d had in 18 years in government, busy, busy, busy.  Not to put too fine a point on it—we were done.

Mr Zwozdesky is not the Wizard of Oz.  He’s the MC at the Cirque du Soleil.  He’s so busy promoting the party line and the interests of the private sector that he doesn’t have the time nor the inclination to listen to Albertans.  But the WCPH and groups like it all across the province will not be distracted by the razzle dazzle of the performance even when we end up with front row seats.  There is serious work to be done.  If this group of politicians won’t address the issues raised by Albertans, there is someone else waiting in the wings who will.

* WCPH was originally formed by the citizens of Whitemud, but has expanded to include citizens across the province.  It’s a non-partisan group focussing on health services and seniors care.

**For the youngsters in the crowd, Sgt Schultz was a character in Hogan’s Heroes, a sitcom set in a German POW camp.  Schultz was an incompetent oaf who distanced himself from trouble with the classic phrase “I know nothing, I know nothing.” 

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10 Responses to Zwoz: The Wizard of Oz

  1. Rose Marie MacKenzie says:

    The only person who seems to benefit here is Health Minister, Mr. Zwozdesky. Practice makes perfect and when he no longer wishes to work in politics he can always join the carnival, they can always use a good con man. Watch the shiny coin, now you see it, now you don’t.

    The only good thing here is that people like you keep asking questions and sooner or later someone will have to give the pubic a straight and honest answer. Keep pounding they can only hide behind words for so long.

  2. Rose, you’re right about the “now you see it, now you don’t” feeling. It was very difficult to get a straight answer out of the Health Minister. Seems to me when concerned citizens come to talk to a government official the least he can do is listen. Unfortunately that’s not how the Zwoz operates and the people of Alberta will suffer the consequences.

    • Frank Horvath says:

      You’re characterization of our meeting with the Zwoz is apt indeed, Susan. What continues to puzzle me is “why” a Minister of the Crown would behave so defensively towards our WCPH, a group of ordinary citizens? In a democracy, government holds power because citizens like us look to them to strengthen public institutions for the common good. As individual citizens, we need protection from forces that seek personal gain over all else. What value is there in a government that gives away the power we gave them to profit seekers, for example? As powerful corporations move into the health care market, who will protect our interests? A true wizard would not only be too glad to hear the concerns of his subjects, he would find a way to act on our behalf too.

  3. Great observations Frank. As you point out our meeting with Zwoz clearly illustrates that Zwoz and his government have no respect for the democratic process. Consequently there is nothing to prevent Zwoz from helping private industry “care” for the people of Alberta. The private providers continue to grow rich while the quality of care for Albertans diminishes. Groups like WCPH remind politicians what a good politician (or a good wizard) should be doing…no wonder Zwoz was so defensive!

    Thanks again for your fine leadership in that difficult meeting. We all appreciated it very much! . .

  4. Carol Wodak says:

    Susan, I did enjoy your report of the meeting with The Wizard. It brought back vivid recollections of meeting SALT representatives had with Premier Stelmach and Seniors’ Minister Jablonski on April 30, 2008.
    Three of us had carefully prepared for the meeting: we each had a topic and a carefully planned written submission, fully documented, to support our concerns.
    It was, unfortunately, the Day of the Ducks in the Legislative Assembly; the Premier was delayed in the house.
    While we waited, we chatted with Ms. Jablonski and her entourage (a Deputy Minister and an Assistant Deputy Minister, Chi Loo). The most startling contribution was from Mr. Loo: he announced that within 10 years, skin stem cell research will have advanced to the point where medical treatments would resolve many disability issues, and this had to be taken into account in planning care and other support services so we don’t develop an oversupply of these resources. (I did write to him later, asking for any information documenting this concept as a planning consideration, the anticipated time-frame for this to become a reality and the anticipated development costs and cost benefits. I did not get a reply.)
    Because so much time had lapsed, we agreed to start our presentations to the Minister; in the midst of the first, the Premier arrived, with a complement of three large men in suits, who were not introduced and who proceeded to stand behind us with their arms crossed for the remainder of the meeting. We did recognize one of the men as Tom Olson, the Premier’s director of communications.
    Mr. Stelmach immediately launched into what he described as “being very frank with us”. Among other comments, he remarked that seniors do not need to be institutionalized (“do you want to put your mother into a hospital?” “a nurse costs $100,000 a year to employ, you can hire 2 or 3 personal care aides for that money”); the professional associations were making it very difficult to license foreign nurses, by requiring that nurses have qualification in obstetrics in order to work in a nursing homes; we don’t need nurses to care for seniors; the building code should be changed to require all homes to be wheelchair accessible, so folks could stay at home even with mobility impairments. He mused about the resident fees for long term care, saying that they were among the lowest in Canada and everything, including utilities, cost more.
    He commented that there were many pressures in health care, including the cost of new drugs, and that health care costs and the proposal for an Independent Seniors’ Advocate had to be considered in the context of the need to balance costs against wealth creation. He also commented on the CBC’s contention that the cost of fertilizer contributed to the cost of farming, saying that the cost of fertilizer did not affect the price he got for his wheat, and the demand of municipalities for even more funding than the $11 billion recently announced.
    We resumed our presentations; before we had finished, the Premier announced that he had a constituency meeting, and he and the guards left.
    Two of us arranged with Ms. Jablonski to follow up on our presentations with subsequent separate meetings; despite our later written requests for these meetings, there was no further contact from her. And that was that.
    Kind of rum, considering that my own particular topic was public consultation, sharing of information and maintaining communication, accountability and transparency, and at the meeting, Ms. Jablonski entirely agreed that these issues needed attention.
    Carol Wodak

    From the SALT blog:
    Friday, February 29, 2008 Chance Meeting With Premier Stelmach on the Indpendent Seniors’ Advocate
    Tuesday, March 25, 2008 Continuing Care Letter to Mr. Stelmach

  5. Ted Woynillowicz says:

    Thank you for providing your insightful piece regarding the meeting with the health minister. It demonstrated the chasm between the government and ordinary citizens. A question I have is how will the CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Treaty Agreement) agreement currently being negotiated between Canada and the EU going to affect public health care if it is signed? Further to that, given that the CETA is an ambitious sub national free trade agreement, why has the public been excluded from participating in this matter?

    • Ted, I must admit that I’m not familiar with CETA–which illustrates your point that the public has been excluded from participating in the process. It’s frightening to realize that so much government activity which has a direct bearing on our health and welfare is occurring behind closed doors. It’s even more upsetting when you consider that both the federal and the provincial conservatives talk a good line about “transparency” and “accountability” but it’s obviously nothing more than lipservice. . .

      I look forward to learning more about CETA. Thank you for providing the link so that we can all become better educated on this issue.

  6. Carol, thank you for sharing this account of the SALT meeting with the Premier, his anonymous guards and the other public officials. It boggles the mind that the head of government would have so little understanding of the key issues, not just with respect to senior care but everything else apparently!

    Your meeting occurred in 2008, it is now 2011. Things have gone from bad to worse. The people of Alberta have an opportunity in the coming election to make some changes. We won’t succeed in removing all of the PC’s but hopefully we’ll put some more MLAs into the opposition so that our interests will be better protected.

    Thanks again for your eloquent comment and your hard work on behalf of all Albertans. It is truly appreciated!

  7. Elaine Fleming, Whitemud Citizens for Public Health says:

    WCPH’s most recent “negotiations” for a meeting with the Health Minister took 6 months, but our first request was actually back in January 2010. A darn long time to wait to get zero information, and to have our concerns, at times rudely, dismissed. We will press on, however! Thanks for getting the message out, because the citizens of Alberta need a serious wake-up call about where our government is headed regarding our health care. They need to get behind the provincial election candidates who will fight for public health care- and we mean delivery of care, not just financing.

  8. Good point Elaine, I’d forgotten about the long long road that WCPH had to travel to get to that fateful 45 minute meeting with Zwoz. It’s even more shocking when you consider that over the last 2 1/2 years WCPH met with Dave Hancock, Fred Horne, James Rajotte, Brian Mason, Kevin Taft and David Swann. It’s time we do exactly what you suggest: get behind the politicians who actually care about health care and put them into the Legislature where they can represent the people of Alberta properly.

    Thanks for your grace and good humour at the meeting. We all felt like we’d “aged in place” about 10 years by the end of that meeting but your grace and good humour made it all worthwhile. And thanks to you and the rest of the WCHP team for refusing to give up!

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